What Does 'Aryan' Mean?

Aryan Nation founder Richard Butler in 2004
David S. Holloway / Getty Images

Aryan is probably one of the most misused and abused words ever to come out of the field of linguistics. What the term Aryan actually means and what it has come to mean are two vastly different things. Unfortunately, errors by some scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries brought about its association with racism, anti-Semitism, and hate.

Origins of Aryan

The word Aryan comes from the ancient languages of Iran and India. It was the term that ancient Indo-Iranian-speaking people likely used to identify themselves in the period around 2000 BCE. This ancient group's language was one branch of the Indo-European language family. Literally the word Aryan may mean noble one.

The first Indo-European language, known as Proto-Indo-European, likely originated around 3500 BCE in the steppe north of the Caspian Sea, along what is now the border between Central Asia and Eastern Europe. From there, it spread across much of Europe and South and Central Asia. The most southerly branch of the family was Indo-Iranian. A number of different ancient peoples spoke Indo-Iranian daughter languages, including the nomadic Scythians, who controlled much of Central Asia from 800 BCE to 400 CE, and the Persians of what is now Iran. 

How the Indo-Iranian daughter languages got to India is a controversial topic; many scholars have theorized that Indo-Iranian speakers, called Aryans or Indo-Aryans, moved into northwestern India from what is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan around 1800 BCE. According to these theories, the Indo-Aryans were descendants of the Andronovo culture of southwest Siberia who interacted with the Bactrians and acquired the Indo-Iranian language from them.

Nineteenth- and early-20th-century linguists and anthropologists believed that an "Aryan Invasion" displaced the original inhabitants of northern India, driving them all south, where they became the ancestors of the Dravidian-speaking peoples such as the Tamils. Genetic evidence, however, shows that there was some mixing of Central Asian and Indian DNA around 1800 BCE, but it was by no means a complete replacement of the local population.

Some Hindu nationalists today refuse to believe that Sanskrit, which is the holy language of the Vedas, came from Central Asia. They insist that it developed within India itself, the "Out of India" hypothesis. In Iran, however, the linguistic origins of the Persians and other Iranian peoples is far less controversial. Indeed, the name "Iran" is Persian for "Land of the Aryans" or "Place of the Aryans."

19th-Century Misconceptions

The theories outlined above represent the current consensus on the origins and diffusion of the Indo-Iranian languages and the so-called Aryan people. However, it took many decades for linguists, aided by archaeologists, anthropologists, and eventually geneticists, to piece this story together.

During the 19th century, European linguists and anthropologists mistakenly believed that Sanskrit was a preserved relic, a sort of fossilized remnant of the earliest usage of the Indo-European language family. They also believed that Indo-European culture was superior to other cultures and thus that Sanskrit was in some way the highest of the languages. 

A German linguist named Friedrich Schlegel developed the theory that Sanskrit was related closely to Germanic languages. (He based this on a few words that sounded similar between the two language families.) Decades later, in the 1850s, a French scholar named Arthur de Gobineau wrote a four-volume study titled "An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races." In it, Gobineau announced that northern Europeans such as Germans, Scandinavians, and northern French people represented the pure "Aryan" type, while southern Europeans, Slavs, Arabs, Iranians, Indians, and others represented impure, mixed forms of humanity that resulted from interbreeding between the white, yellow, and black races.

This is complete nonsense, of course, and represents a northern European hijacking of a south and central Asian ethnolinguistic identity. The division of humanity into three "races" also has no basis in science or reality. However, by the late 19th century, the idea that a prototypical Aryan person should be Nordic-looking—tall, blond-haired, and blue-eyed—had taken hold in northern Europe.

Nazis and Other Hate Groups

By the early 20th century, Alfred Rosenberg and other northern European "thinkers" had taken the idea of the pure Nordic Aryan and turned it into a "religion of the blood." Rosenberg expanded on Gobineau's ideas, calling for the annihilation of racially inferior, non-Aryan types of people in northern Europe. Those identified as non-Aryan Untermenschen, or subhumans, included Jews, Roma, and Slavs as well as Africans, Asians, and Native Americans in general.

It was a short step for Adolf Hitler and his lieutenants to move from these pseudoscientific ideas to the concept of a "Final Solution" for the preservation of so-called "Aryan" purity. In the end, this linguistic designation, combined with a heavy dose of Social Darwinism, made for them a perfect excuse for the Holocaust, in which the Nazis targeted the Untermenschen for death by the millions.

Since that time, the term "Aryan" has been severely tainted and has fallen out of common usage in linguistics, except in the term "Indo-Aryan" to designate the languages of northern India. Hate groups and neo-Nazi organizations such as the Aryan Nation and the Aryan Brotherhood, however, still insist on using this term to refer to themselves, even though they're likely not Indo-Iranian speakers.